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The Shadow of a Rose

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The lighting is perfect, the angles are perfect, and yet Basil finds himself faltering just the same.

“Turn your head a little to the right. The right – there’s a good boy.”

John complies. Basil resumes his drawing, or tries to. He scowls. It’s one of the worst things he’s done in a long time. There’s the likeness to John, of course, but the image is flat, somehow, hollow.

“You’ve moved around again,” he snaps.

John fidgets. Basil controls himself.

“Tilt your head the way you had it a moment ago,” he says, more gently: it’s not the boy’s fault that he’s losing his touch.

“Like this, Mr. Hallward?”

 “That’ll do.”

John nods, but his eyes dart around the room, as if he’s looking for the time or for some other excuse to leave. Basil grits his teeth in annoyance. He remembers Dorian doing the same thing, but it was charming in him.

“Is it all right if I stand like this?” John asks, bored.

Basil looks up again,

“It’s fine,” he says. He wants to say that perhaps they should try again tomorrow; he’s a little out of sorts this afternoon, but he knows tomorrow will be no better.

At first it’s a relief when John leaves. Then the emptiness sinks in. The studio has been so empty, lately. Just a few months ago he had had Dorian with him every day, sitting for him, or talking about anything – a thousand things. His rooms were so full of laughter then.

He had gone out with other friends, several times, but they bored him. No one can hold his interest the way Dorian could. After a while he had stopped bothering, and become even more of a recluse.

He tries to sketch, but when he does, every face looks like Dorian’s. It makes him deeply uneasy. Even landscapes have lost the beauty they once had for him. He remembers working on that one woodland scene while Dorian sat beside him and had, at one point, leaned over to look at his drawing. His lips had just brushed the back of Basil’s hand. The gesture was maddening – but exquisite. Dorian’s touch had given his work that passion that it had always lacked, and that he fears he may be losing already.

The small, pragmatic part of his brain warns him that this can't bode well for his career. He tells himself that he can afford a dry spell for now.

He tells himself that Dorian will come back to him, too. Eventually he’ll tire of Harry’s glamour – or Harry will tire of him – and they will resume their friendship, unchanged. Basil closes his eyes sometimes and imagines what they’ll say to each other. He’s even started one idle charcoal sketch or maybe two of Dorian leaning against the doorpost with a smile on his face. He hid them away at the bottom of a drawer, of course. The next day he took them out and threw them on the fire. But he can just see that moment of reunion, and hear their exchange, even though he knows it may never come.

* * *

The day does come. A few unbearable weeks go by, and Dorian calls upon him at last.

“Mr. Dorian Gray, sir,” Parker says, coming into the room.

Basil gets up immediately.

“Show him in,” he says. He paces forward, hands clasped together. His eyes meet Dorian’s as the young man enters, and his breath catches in his throat. But he says nothing for a moment; he’s almost too surprised and too glad to speak.

It’s Dorian who breaks the silence.

“How long it’s been,” he laughs.

A flicker of bitterness surges in Basil. He wants to say that it has been a long time since that day in June – June! – when Dorian last came down to the studio. But he stops himself. Why spoil the best thing that’s happened to him in weeks? Besides, nagging would only make him seem a bigger fool.

He takes Dorian’s hand.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Have you been well? You’ll stay for tea, of course?”

Dorian smiles. “Yes, I thought I might. I have some time this afternoon, and I thought we might catch up…”

“I’m so glad. Parker, set a second place. Mr. Gray will stay to tea.”

The awkwardness passes and they talk for a while. When Parker leaves them alone they sit so close together that it’s almost painful.

Dorian is so different. Basil tries not to hear the callous, careless things Dorian says – worse than Harry – and tells himself that he’s happy; he has Dorian with him again; he can’t blame him for maturing. He could not have remained that same naive boy forever.

The change is remarkable. Dorian’s a man now, more clever and more quick witted (not cruel) than ever, with sudden, definite opinions about people and philosophy and the world (not hard-hearted). Basil wanted this – to be a part of his friend’s life and development.

But the studio’s as empty as a tomb after he leaves. The smell of dying, late-summer roses is heavy in the air.

Basil presses his hands to his temples. There’s a tightness in his chest from longing and despair, as if Dorian’s brief visit between lunch with Harry and a concert with some other friend has done nothing to ease the hunger within him.

He sighs. His loneliness is worse, not better.

* * *

He wakes up in the middle of the night aroused, with his face flushed; he is sweating despite the cold night, and his breathing is ragged. He shuts his eyes again.

But even with his eyes closed he still sees Dorian in his imagination. He had drawn him half-naked in classical costume, as Hyacinth, lying prone on the floor of the studio, and as Narcissus kneeling over a basin of water. He remembers every line of Dorian’s body, even as he tries not to – tries not to imagine the feeling of Dorian’s hands on him, around him, the warmth of the younger man’s skin, the taste of his mouth…

He berates himself for his treacherous thoughts. Of course Dorian's not the first person to stir this lust in him. But Dorian is different than any of the friends who’d caught his eye at Oxford. Dorian, with his fair hair, and high cheekbones, and that shy look in his eyes, or the haughty, stormy expression that Basil is seeing more and more – well. Basil has never been this weak.

He cringes at the thought of leading Dorian into anything that could be harmful. But then, Dorian has become so modern in his opinions and in the way he sneers at convention...

No. That would be sinful and shameful – disastrous. He’d be courting scandal or blackmail at best. He bites his lip, tells himself that he can't lead Dorian, or himself, down that path.

But he can't stop wanting Dorian, either.

He racks his brain for some distraction. He think of the bills he has to pay, the exhibit at the Academy, where he’ll be sending several paintings (older works, before Dorian) – anything, really. Still his mind wanders back to Dorian’s face. He imagines the young man’s soft lips on Basil’s mouth or body, and sees the young man’s eyes darkening with need as he looks up to meet Basil’s own…

His face burns with shame as he strokes himself to completion.

* **

Sometimes, Dorian comes for tea or dines with him. He never sits for him anymore, for whatever reason, but Basil has already forgiven him. He has made his peace with losing the one ideal he ever had in his art: just seeing Dorian means more to him by far than his career or his reputation.

He tells himself that nothing has changed, not really. Dorian always had a cruel streak in him. Basil would never say that; even thinking it is like a betrayal. But there had always been those moments when Dorian would say something so careless, so cutting, Basil would feel as if he had been struck. Then Dorian would continue as if nothing had happened. But Basil would remember. He would sit in the studio long after Dorian was gone wondering what he might do to be a better friend to the boy or, perhaps, to break the bondage of his own pathetic obsession.

Those barbs come more often now. Basil wonders why he only longs for Dorian more, whatever he says.

But sometimes Dorian shows him real gratitude and real affection. Sometimes he laughs at Basil's poor attempts at wit, or praises a new sketch at length, as he did when they first met.

Sometimes he seems almost afraid. Sometimes he sits beside Basil, close enough to touch, and speaks in rushed, nervous tones about their friendship.

“I hope we’ll always be friends,” he says one night, settling himself on the divan and gazing down at the remains of their meal on the table opposite. “I told you once that if I ever really needed a friend – if I were ever truly in trouble – I could go to you…”

His voice is plaintive and warm – needy, even. The tone is infinitely touching to Basil. It reminds him of the kind-hearted youth who used to pose for him. He draws closer to Dorian, reaches out to clasp his shoulder, then hesitates and lets his hand drop down.

“Dorian,” he murmurs. God, even the name is beautiful. “What is it – what’s troubling you? You can come to me. You know I’ll help you.”

Their eyes meet for a long moment. Dorian is pale. There’s a tension in the muscles of his face that tells of anxiety and guilt. Basil frowns; it hurts him to see such pain in his friend’s features. He wonders what could possibly lie behind it, what trouble the young man could be in.

“Perhaps,” Dorian says. He bites his lip and stares down at his high, gleaming black boots. Then he goes quiet.

Basil reaches for him again. He tries to think of something to say to make Dorian confide in him; he’d give anything to be needed, to be the person Dorian turns to in times of trouble – just him, not Harry or anyone else. He clasps Dorian’s shoulder. The young man’s skin is warm, even through the fabric of his shirt.

Then Basil realizes with a start that Parker will soon come in to clear the remains of their meal. He jerks back.

“Wait,” he says. “I’ll lock the door. Then we can talk more freely.”

He crosses the room to the door and locks it. When he turns back, Dorian has stood up and taken a step towards him. Something in the air has shifted, and Dorian’s face is quite different – calm, self-satisfied. Cheerful, almost.

“What’s troubling you?” Basil asks again. He imagines lying on the divan with Dorian, stroking his hair or kissing his neck while he speaks. With an effort he suppresses that thought.

Dorian shakes his head.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Let’s talk of more pleasant things."

Basil sighs, too aware that there’s no accounting for Dorian’s moods. He tries to smile and touches Dorian's arm, tentatively.

"Very well," he says. "We’ll talk about whatever you like, as always. But if you want to tell me anything –"

"It doesn't matter," Dorian says again in a clipped tone. Basil presses him anyway.

"But you can always -"

"Don't," Dorian says, and kisses Basil.

Basil gasps. For a moment he doesn't move or breathe, just stands there shocked, drinking in the cool softness of Dorian's lips on his own mouth. Then he reaches up to graze his fingers over Dorian’s back and shoulders. His hands are already shaking.

Dorian pulls away, just a little, and laughs at Basil's flushed face and trembling hands. The sound only arouses Basil more. He leans forward, forces from his brain all thoughts of sin and scandal, and covers Dorian's mouth with his own, kissing him again and again.

When they finally part Dorian is almost as flushed as Basil is and his lips are swollen. Basil smiles at him, his first real smile in an age.

"Dorian–"

"Don't speak," Dorian says, pressing the tip of one finger against Basil's lips. Then he draws back, takes a step towards the divan, and in one fluid motion unties his necktie and begins unbuttoning his bright waistcoat. He drops down onto the divan, beckoning Basil with his eyes.

Basil swallows hard. But he sits down beside Dorian, so close that he's sure the younger man can hear his heart pounding in his chest. Dorian laughs again. He grasps Basil's shoulders, pulling him closer still so that he is lying almost on top of Dorian. The look in Dorian's blue eyes is darker and more carnal than Basil has ever imagined; it sends a shiver down his spine. He crushes his mouth to Dorian’s. Then Basil closes his eyes and slowly starts to kiss a trail down Dorian’s body, worshipping him.

* * *

Afterward, Dorian falls into a light sleep. One slim, strong hand rests on Basil's arm, and his head rests against Basil's shoulder. He looks for all the world like a boy who had tired himself out at school or at play.

Basil supposes he’ll be late for whatever engagement he might have tonight, and smiles to think of it – to think that Dorian felt some desire for him, too, and chose to be with him as a lover, however briefly.

He shifts his position, hoping to ease the crick in his neck without waking Dorian. The young man looks so contented. That peaceful look on his face contrasts sharply with his anxiety during supper and his lust when they had finally consummated their friendship.

Basil closes his eyes, drowsy himself and equally at peace. Tomorrow, he knows, his conscience may return and taint even the memory of what they had done tonight. But for now he cannot imagine anything nobler or more beautiful than this.